Ex-secretary, Ministry of External Affairs
Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale briefed the media on PM Modi’s meeting in Bishkek on June 13 with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit. In response to a question, Gokhale disclosed that Modi and Xi had a brief discussion on Pakistan. Gokhale skirted a query on who raised India-Pakistan relations. While there was no reason for Modi to have done so, a firm indication, on this point, would have been helpful to comprehend India’s international diplomacy on Pakistan. Assuming it was Xi who raised the issue, it is a pity that Gokhale’s discretion did not permit him to either say that Xi did so or reveal the manner in which he raised the matter, for that would have indicated the nature of Chinese concerns regarding Pakistan’s current difficulties.
Modi bluntly told Xi that India has a ‘consistent’ position on Pakistan, that discussions are through ‘bilateral mechanisms’, that it looks for ‘peaceful settlement through negotiations’, that it remains committed to this process, and that he has himself made ‘efforts’ in this regard but these have been ‘derailed’. Modi went on to clarify that ‘Pakistan needs to create an atmosphere free of terrorism’ which was ‘not happening’ as ‘yet’. He further mentioned that India expected ‘Pakistan to take concrete actions on the issues that India has proposed in the areas of concern that we have flagged’ and that ‘Pakistan should take concrete action in this regard’.
Modi succinctly laid out to Xi the broad contours of India’s basic approach to Pakistan. This constituted a reiteration of the well-known policy. However, when Modi spoke of India’s demand of concrete actions in areas of its concerns did he imply that India has given a list of specific action points to Pakistan? The government would do well to shed light on this aspect, for the impression is that notwithstanding the many dossiers it has handed over to Pakistan over the years, India only generally wants Pakistan to roll back on terror, so that terror organisations operating on its territory do not carry out attacks in India.
Modi’s strong message on Pakistan to Xi was replicated in his conduct towards Pakistan PM Imran Khan during the summit and his eventual decision not to overfly Pakistan. The two ‘exchanged pleasantries’ out of the media glare but Modi maintained a distance in public. He also homed into Pakistan, without naming it, on the terrorism issue during his intervention at the summit plenary.
Khan’s phone call and letter congratulating Modi on his poll victory could be considered as part of current diplomatic practice of courtesies among leaders. He could also have hardly avoided indirectly lashing out at India, without naming it, in his intervention at the plenary. These were par for the course. His repeated references to the resumption of bilateral dialogue on all issues indicate an eagerness to resume a broader bilateral engagement. This is on account of several factors.
Pakistan is in serious economic and financial difficulties. The budget, presented last week, envisages a GDP rise of just 2.2% in the current fiscal. The Pakistani rupee has touched historic lows against the dollar. Pakistan is resource-strapped, particularly for sustained armed confrontation with India. The resumption of a full-fledged engagement is therefore a current tactical requirement for the Pakistan army. Additionally, a return to normalcy on the India-Pakistan front may calm investor nerves and also hearten Pakistan’s friends in the Islamic world.
The real question is if Modi will really sustain the approach that unless Pakistan undertakes course correction on terrorism, the resumption of full engagement would be futile. He has continued with this policy after the Uri attack of September 2016. Indeed, he upped the ante through the surgical strikes. After the Pulwama attack, he went further to undertake the Balakot aerial action on February 26. That day, India spelt out its new preemption doctrine which has not attracted sufficient attention in the country. The Pakistani counter the next day does not erode the doctrine’s import and thrust, for it asserts that escalation begins with the preparation of a terror attack against India.
In view of this new Indian doctrine, Western countries are putting pressure on Pakistan to abandon its use of terror, for it is getting too dangerous a game to play. At a recent hearing of the US House of Representatives South Asia sub-committee of the Foreign Affairs committee, Alice Wells, who heads the South Asia bureau of the State Department, called on Pakistan to undertake ‘sustained and irreversible’ steps to end terror. As long as India was willing to ‘live’ with attacks such strong language was not used in the Indian context against Pakistan. Were Modi to therefore accept Khan’s pleading and begin even a gradual process towards full engagement, the major powers will soften pressure on Pakistan. Therefore, too, the present approach needs to be relentlessly pursued.
The maintenance of diplomatic contacts through the missions, a focus on people-centric issues such as the Kartarpur corridor and loosening up the visa regime as well as continuing military channels of communications cannot be construed as eroding the position on dialogue. Contact between neighbours on these matters is essential; its absence causes misery.
It will be wrong to assume that even Pakistan’s present economic troubles will easily persuade it to give up its anti-India reflexes or the use of terror. Its irrational decision to continue with its airspace closure only underscores this point. India will have to maintain its present position and act on the preemption doctrine when required to have its concerns taken seriously by Pakistan and the international community.
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